Sim Lee Choo Lynn has spent 15 years in the cleaning industry.

The 49-year-old has spent 10 years as an office cleaner but started at hawker centres five years ago. Now, she works from noon to 8pm at Adam Road Food Centre, seven days a week.

“I’ve been everywhere,” she tells The Pride in Mandarin, talking about her experiences in hawker centres, “I’ve worked at Chong Pang Market, Newton (food centre), and in January, I moved from Yishun Park (hawker centre) to Adam Road.”

To get to work, she travels from her home in Yishun, where she stays with her elderly mother and her adult son, to reach the food centre by 11.30am. After having her lunch, she gets to work.

During the eight hours of her shift, she walks around the food centre non-stop, keeping a lookout for tables that need to be cleaned. “My leg usually hurts very badly after my shift,” she says, “So I sometimes take a day off to rest and do tuina (therapeutic massage).”

Today, just before meeting The Pride, she slipped and sprained her ankle at work. But she had to continue on with her day as per usual, she says. “I can only go off an hour earlier today, because I do most of the work here,” she explains.

Cleaning for Muslim Stall
With a table cloth in hand and a waistbelt stocked with cleaning supplies, Choo Lynn looks after the Muslim stall area. After customers leave, she often has to collect their trays and distribute its contents into the proper bins for disposal or washing. Image source: Jamie Wong

Her main responsibility is to clean the tables, which she does, despite her hurt ankle.

Choo Lynn is part of an eight-person team at the food centre. Working in a noisy hawker centre with people constantly milling about sometimes puts her colleagues and supervisors in an irritable mood. She says: “Sometimes, some of them bully me and try to get me to do their work. I ignore them and continue because I know what I am doing.”

Hawker Center Cleaner Cleaning Cutlery
Trays with their plates and cutlery waiting to be organised into their respective bins and taken to the sink for washing. Image source: Jamie Wong

It’s faster if people clear their own trays

“People normally think taking trays away from the tables is our job,” she says, “but we really have to put away the things on the tray to be washed and wipe the tables, so if you return your tray first, we can clean the tables faster and get it ready for other customers.”

Hawker Center Cleaner - Dirty Dishes
Choo Lynn taking a plastic pail of dirty dishes to the washing area for her colleagues to clean. Image source: Jamie Wong

In fact, customers who clear their own trays actually make cleaners’ lives easier, since they can focus more on cleaning up the tray return area and wiping tables, which frees up eating spaces faster.

Choo Lynn admits that what she does is a thankless job. Often, she would be rushed by her supervisor to clean a table while she is taking a bucket of dirty dishes to the communal washing area. Other times, customers would point out stains that she has missed in her rush to clear a table.

No one acknowledges her as she works her way through the food centre. Despite the lack of appreciation, Choo Lynn says that she is content to have something to do and earn an honest living.

“I don’t ask for much,” she says, “Many people ask for bonuses and promotions, but I just need enough to survive.”

One of Singapore’s Best Cleaners

Best Hawker Center Cleaner Award
Image source: Jamie Wong

Choo Lynn’s reliability and conscientious efforts have earned her a Best Cleaner (Hawker Centres) award at the Clean and Green Singapore award three times. Last year, she won for her work at Yishun Park Hawker Centre. She excitedly tells me that her supervisor has nominated her again for this year’s awards.

Sharing the secrets of her success, she cites a popular Mandarin saying she lives by: 人人为我。我为人人 (ren ren wei wo, wo wei ren ren), or “all for one and one for all”.

“Even when the customer is wrong, I just apologise and give them the right of way,” she says with a grin. “It’s a small matter anyway.”

It might not be exactly the same sentiment as The Three Musketeers but that idiom has kept her grounded and helps her deal with unreasonable customers, who scold her and even threaten to hit her when she comes to clear their table.

“Sometimes, there are just some elderly people who may be in a bad mood,” she says. “I try not to judge them or let them affect me.”

Choo Lynn chooses to focus on the positive instead. “I hope I can keep getting the award,” she says with a laugh, “I want to keep proving to everyone around me that the right thing to do is to be kind against those who dislike or are mean to you.”

Rare treat for hawker center cleaner
Choo Lynn celebrating a recent birthday with her son at Din Tai Fung, a rare treat. Image source: Sim Lee Choo Lynn

And her son seems to have picked up on her kind nature, too. “My son wants to be a nurse,” she says, “he has a very big heart, and he is very filial.”

“Young people now would never think of working my job,” she says, “and they shouldn’t. The hours are long, and you can be more productive working a better job. So I tell my son he must study hard.”

Just a cleaner? It’s an honest profession

Hawker Center Cleaner - Adam Road
Image source: Jamie Wong

Choo Lynn points out that on any given day, anyone is capable of dismissing her as “just a cleaner”.

“It’s both young and old, men and women,” she sighs, “and all of them could do with a little more empathy.”

While Choo Lynn gets her fair share of unpleasant experiences, she says that she has made good friends within the three months since she started at Adam Road. The regulars at the food centre are friendly, often greeting her and striking up a casual chit-chat as she clears their table.

“I have friends at every stall here too,” she says, “I buy lunch from them every day.”

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While some Singaporeans may point at cleaners and nag at their children to study hard so as to not end up like them, they see it is an honest job like any other profession, filled with challenges and opportunities for self-development.

For Choo Lynn, she says she sticks to her own standard of work regardless of whether people are paying attention or not.

“My supervisor often teases me that he’s nominating me again, and I tell him that I’m going to watch over him to make sure he actually writes my name down,” she laughs.

“I have two brothers and one sister, and they are all proud of me when I walk on stage to receive the award,” she says, “but I don’t do my work because I want the praise and achievements. I do it with my heart, because it is fulfilling.”


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Top Image: Jamie Wong